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Parashat Vayehi 5784

December 26, 2023
by Rabbi Marge Wise

As I prepared to write a D’var Torah for parashat Vayehi – with my Tanakh, my research notes and my computer open in front of me, my thoughts kept going to the date later in the week of the yahrzeit of my husband, Rabbi Joseph H. Wise z”l. I looked it up and parashat Vayehi was read on the Shabbat following his passing which seemed to further connect the parashah and the yahrzeit.

My husband left a great legacy as a Rabbi, as a consummate teacher of Torah and as a very special human being. In that spirit I would like to dedicate my D’var Torah to his memory, yehi zikhro barukh.

Parashat Vayehi, “and he lived” is the concluding Torah reading of both the book of Bereisheet, Genesis, and the account of Joseph’s life. It’s also about death. Both Jacob and Joseph come to their respective ends; and the haftarah that we read describes the final hours of King David’s life, as well. Jacob’s blessings to his twelve sons and to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, emphasize life, though. So, although the theme of death is in the text, the Torah points us to life and to the future of the Israelites.

As he gathers his children around his deathbed, Jacob offers each one a blessing that is more like a charge. In Jacob’s personalized words are wishes for his children that come from his own life experience, as well as from his relationship with his sons and with their strengths – and in some cases – their weaknesses.

For Rabbi Kerry Olitsky: “Of the many lessons that Jacob teaches us, we learn from him that old age can be a powerful teacher, as well as a calming influence particularly as they relate to those issues that seem to tear families apart only years before. The things that were once so important are eclipsed by the hovering shadow made so poignant by the angel of death. If we can reconcile at the end of life, why can’t we do so earlier? What will it take to do so earlier?”

These are thought-provoking questions to be sure. I’m certain that each of us would answer these questions differently based on who we are and based on the relationships which punctuate our lives.

Parashat Vayehexplores human relationships and, in the process, it provides a powerful example of how death can open wounds. With their father’s passing, the brothers are now worried that Joseph may take revenge for what they did to him, in selling him into slavery. We learn of their heightened fear in a midrash from Genesis Rabbah 100, which relates that Joseph turned off the road after he and his brothers buried Jacob, to visit the pit where the brothers had cast him in, many years earlier. The brothers feared that this proved that Joseph bore a grudge against them but what Joseph actually did, according to the midrash, is to offer a blessing to God for the miracle which actually had occurred there.

In Joseph’s action, we learn that, rather than as an object of revenge, the pit took on the form of a memorial. As Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz wrote:

“More than sparking feelings of anger and vengeance, memorials have the power to heal. What the brothers’ fear in the midrash is understandable, they fail to acknowledge another possibility — that of healing. The pain of the past can never be erased. It waxes and wanes through one’s life, urging the victim to tell the story, and more importantly, to continue on the journey of life”.

Another take on forgiveness is offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he describes Joseph’s forgiveness as “a turning point in history because it was the first recorded act of forgiveness in literature”. Joseph’s response to his brothers’ fear was to tell them not to be afraid. He continued, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them”. (Gen 50:19-21) This is forgiveness.

   וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף וגו’ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה וגו’ וְעַתָּה אַל תִּירָאוּ וגו’ וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לִבָּם

Rabbi Sacks further says that “Judaism represents, for the first time in history, a morality of guilt rather than shame. The key difference between the two is that in shame cultures, wrongdoing is like a stain on the person. In guilt cultures, however, there is a fundamental distinction between the person and his or her acts. It was the act that was wrong, not the person. That is what makes forgiveness possible”.

In conclusion, the book of Bereisheet shows us how God began a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people, beginning with Abraham and Sarah.

Parashat Vayehi continues in this vein. In order for our covenant to be sustained, each generation depends on those who follow them to continue the task. We must further internalize the teaching, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

 הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

What Jacob does is to empower the next generation to do their utmost to sustain the covenant that God made with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. That will assure that the covenant will live on, ledor vador, from generation to generation.

Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be, bimheirah veyamenu, speedily in our day. Amen.


Rabbi Marge Wise (AJR ’21), is also known as the Journey Rabbi. Her passion is outreach, including teaching prospective Jews by choice and accompanying them on their journey to formal conversion. She teaches in person and on Zoom.